Students Must Learn the Weight of Words

Words matter. Maybe more than anything else, I want my students to learn the critical importance of words they write, words they speak, and especially, words they read or hear.

In every subject area, teachers teach students a specific vocabulary to foster precise and effective discussions. Imagine trying to learn algebra without using the word “equation.” Imagine a senior civics class where students didn’t know the words “incumbent” or “legislation.”

Students in my English classes learn that their native tongue includes more than twice the vocabulary of languages such as French, Italian or Spanish. More words allow us to be more precise, more creative, more persuasive and even more manipulative.

A focus on words underlies every language arts lesson. Authors carefully select specific words to create a certain tone or attitude. Speakers repeat certain words or utter words with negative or positive connotations to persuade or manipulate audiences.

And it is this profound ability of words to manipulate thoughts and behaviors that is the most important lesson for students to learn. Our job as teachers must be to inoculate students against the most sinister abuses of words and language – abuses calculated to control them.

The intentional use of language to manipulate people’s thoughts and actions is the broad definition of propaganda. In a recent unit on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” my sophomores and juniors examined various types of propaganda and contemporary examples of each. I shared with them one of the most blatant examples I had ever witnessed: A billboard along an interstate highway in southern West Virginia that read: “Coal supports our schools. Do you support coal?”

My students immediately understood the implication: If you didn’t “support” coal, you didn’t support schools. They smirked at the absurdity. But if they hadn’t been discussing propaganda or studying other examples, would they have been susceptible to the calculated manipulation?

Orwell, of course, was railing against the totalitarian governments of the 1940s. He claimed that the abuse of language endangers democracy. But he couldn’t have anticipated the role of propaganda and language in our democracy. So concluded panelists in a discussion of “Propaganda: Then and Now,” sponsored by the New York City Public Library. In recognition of Orwell’s contributions to the study of language, the panel discussion was held on Nov. 7, 2007, exactly one year before the 2008 elections. Its stated purpose was to examine the connections between words and truth in contemporary political campaigns. (To watch a video, go to

The panelists noted the word “propaganda” originated with Pope Gregory XV, who, in 1622, established a “congregation for propagating the faith.” Its purpose was to develop a consistent set of “talking points.”

Modern forms of propaganda stem directly from the science and art of public relations. Panelists quoted Edward Bernays, the father of PR: “If we understand mechanisms and motives of the group, we can control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.”

That sure sounds Orwellian!

But wait, there’s more.

According to Bernays’s business partner, Paul Mazur: “We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Thus, contemporary propagandists – marketers, politicians and others – use words playing on our fears, desires, inadequacies and guilt to manipulate the way we think. And today they can do it with the sophisticated tools of the Internet and mass media.

What does all this have to do with schools and students?

If we are teaching children to become responsible, fully participating citizens in a democracy, they must recognize the power of language. They must be sophisticated enough to recognize that when politicians or talk show hosts call others “socialists” or “hawks” or “rednecks” or “liberals,” they are using loaded words to push people’s buttons. They must understand that being “pro-life” is not the same thing as being “anti-abortion,” or that “pro-choice” is not the same as “pro-abortion.” They must realize that if they question the intentions of the Patriot Act, or Friends of Coal, that does not make them “unpatriotic” or an “enemy.”

Yes, words are important. They are easily abused. It takes time and intelligence to try to understand and rationally discuss both sides of an argument. Flinging word weapons is far simpler.

Linda Shalaway, author of “Learning to Teach … Not just for Beginners” (Scholastic, 2005) teaches at Cameron High School.